I spent this past Friday at a workshop writing out my three year vision and determining SMART goals. I left buzzing with the energy of having a plan and clear focus for the future, but by the time I pulled up to our house that energy had morphed into complete overwhelm.
The goals that just a couple hours before had seemed so full of promise, fueled by the power of direction, big, but attainable, suddenly looked vague, half-baked, and completely unrealistic. How would I ever manage to do this?
And there it was. That annoying “how” part that comes in and squashes the best-laid dreams. Over the years, I’ve realized that when I start frantically questioning “how??” at the onset of any big undertaking, I’m typically at the behest of my inner critic.
I’ve come to regard my inner critic as a well-intentioned, anxiety-prone family member. She really just wants the best for me, but in her limited scope of the world that only means avoiding failure and ridicule.
My inner critic can’t see all of who I am, just the times when I forgot the music during my piano recital or when a group of girlfriends in my fifth grade class ignored me for two months.
Armed with only those types of horrible memories, she worries that if I keep carrying on with all my hair-brained schemes I’ll fall on my face and be subject to harsh judgment.
In a twisted way, it actually makes sense. But I didn’t always feel so understanding about this side of myself. I used to hate her.
Sure, she helped motivate me to do things that people would commend like exercising and getting admirable jobs in nonprofits, but she also sabotage my efforts with her perfectionism because if I didn’t feel I knew how to do something well enough, I often wouldn’t try.
And for years, she kept me from fully occupying my life in a way that felt authentic.
I’ve had a lot of opportunities in the past year to change the dynamic with my inner critic because the more I venture out into unfamiliar territory–public speaking, blogging, networking, and sales–the louder and louder she has shrieked her disapproval.
Here are the most effective ways I’ve found to tame this inner voice:
1. Be a good listener.
Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned in dealing with my inner critic is that she will not be ignored.
Whether I try to block her out with sheer optimism, or argue against her reasoning, I lose. She has an endless supply of points against me, she uses circular logic, and doesn’t care if she repeats herself anyway.
“You’re not smart enough. You’re not talented enough. People will think this is stupid”
She can go on forever, and eventually I get tired and she takes over like in the movie Invasion of the Bodysnatchers when people fall asleep and assume weird alien identities (but the 80s remake one, with Donald Sutherland).
So the only real way to quiet this lady down is to be compassionate and ask her a question. You can do this by bringing some awareness to what you feel in your body.
Does your chest feel tight or is your jaw tense? Take a moment just to send some kindness your way for what you’re experiencing.
Then, if you’re feeling calm, try asking a question of your inner critic, “what are you worried would happen if you didn’t say all this to me?” or “why do you feel like it’s your job to judge me so harshly?”
The more I’ve listened to my inner critic’s fears, the more she’s been willing to step back and trust that I am stronger than she realizes. It may seem counter-intuitive, but without that kind of motivation pushing me, I actually end up accomplishing a lot more.
2. Take a time out.
Just as most of us realize that it doesn’t work to open up a dialogue with someone when you’re still really upset, it also doesn’t work to listen to your inner critic if you’re still caught up in the “Truth” of what she says, or you’re if frustrated with that part of yourself.
First, you have get calm, and then instead of turning toward your inner critic with anger, try curiosity. What does that look like?
Well, if I’m at home, it works best for me when I sit and breathe quietly for a few minutes, write down a question, and then write out my answer. It’s nearly the same response every time I do this, but it always shifts the energy. Suddenly, I don’t feel that anxious, panicked weight on my chest anymore. I feel lighter.
3. Build up your inner mentor as a counterpoint.
The more you listen to your inner critic, the more you’ll come to realize that she doesn’t enjoy holding this burdensome role anymore than you like being criticized.
Overtime, I’ve begun to see how my inner critic could be more useful, and I’ve been able to shift her qualities from relentless judgement to wise guidance. Instead of telling myself I don’t know how to do something, I stop and reflect on where my anxiety is coming from.
With my 3-year plan, I realized part of what was scaring me is that there is some truth to the thought that I don’t know what I’m doing at times. But with my inner mentor, I can consider how to get the resources I need to move forward instead of berating myself with insults for being stupid and ill-prepared.
Tara Mohr outlines several ways to quiet your inner critic in her book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Message, Your Mission, including an incredible “future self” visualization exercise that can help you whenever you want to access your wise, calm inner mentor.
Close your eyes and imagine you time travel twenty years into the future and meet your future self, the person you’d become twenty years from now. Imagine arriving at their home. What kind of place do they live? What is their presence like?
Talk to them and ask them questions like, “what do I need to know to get from where I am to where you are?” You can ask this future self about any dilemma and see what they have to say about it.
On Friday night, I was beat after a busy week and in no mood to sit with my thoughts. I had a big glass of wine, spent Saturday unwinding, but by Sunday I tried each of these exercises.
I felt confused and lost when I started, but when I got to the visualization, my future self was so kind, loving, and wise. She offered an entirely different perspective to me, and I came away trusting I was on the right track again.
Test out these tips the next time you feel overwhelmed and caught in self-doubt. I promise your inner critic will thank you.